Hunting rockcod and moray eel in Sodwana

This is a really cool bit of behaviour that I filmed on a dive to Pinnacles on Two Mile reef while we were in Sodwana last September, and one of my favourite things of all that we saw. A malabar rockcod (Epinephelus malabaricus) – as identified by our dive guides – in dark hunting colours, patrols the reef ahead of a honeycomb moray (Gymnothorax favagineus). At the time I didn’t know what was happening – it looked as though the eel was stalking the grouper – but it turns out to be more complicated and more interesting than that. I had filmed a subset of a total pattern of behaviour, in which the moray and rockcod (from the family of fish also called grouper) were hunting co-operatively.

A researcher at a Swiss university discovered in 2006 that coral groupers seek out giant moray eels (both of these species live in the Red Sea), summoning the eels from their dens with a vigorous shaking of their bodies. The fish and the eel then swim together looking for prey , a deadly tag-team of hunters. The groupers are fast in open water, but the eel can get into crevices to flush out prey. It is this behaviour, executed by a different type of eel and a different type of grouper, that I saw in Sodwana.

The scientists reported that the groupers use a head-stand signal, combined with a shaking of their bodies, to indicate the location of hidden prey to the eels. When the eels see this, most of them swim towards the grouper, and flushed out the prey.

You can read more about the study that revealed the extent of this behaviour here, and the actual paper reporting the research here. The scientists also discovered two other species with complementary skills that hunt co-operatively, on the Great Barrier Reef this time: the coral trout, and octopus.

Moray eels look incredible when they swim freely across the reef. Here’s one doing just that, in the Red Sea.

On the reef in Sodwana

We wrap up the videos from Sodwana with a couple of clips showing everyday life on the reef. Both these videos were filmed on a beautiful dive on Pinnacles, Two Mile Reef, which was strangely not marred by an absolute circus of an Open Water course that was being conducted in the vicinity. (Pinnacles is a popular training site.) Despite antics which included two people’s weight belts coming loose at the same time, we were able to stay away from that chaos and to enjoy some incredible reef life. (Perhaps I will share some footage of the weight belt fiasco when a suitable amount of time has passed.)

Clown triggerfish having a munch
Clown triggerfish having a munch

First up, a clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspiccillum) going about his business on the reef. These fish are fantastic looking, and if you ask Sophie nicely, she will show you the hand signal for them, which requires both hands to be free.

Here’s pair of barred filefish (Cantherhines dumerilii) at Pinnacles:

Schooling in Sodwana

In addition to lots of bluebanded snapper, we saw other schools of fish while we were diving in Sodwana. A calm approach with minimal body movement allows one to get quite close to them. Here, a school of lunar fuslier (Caesio lunaris) are led by a lone yellowback fusilier (Caesio xanthonota), filmed on Two Mile reef.

We also saw this school of handsome humpback snapper (Lutjanus gibbus) over Pinnacles on Two Mile Reef.

Reef life on Seven Mile in Sodwana

While we were in Sodwana in September, one of the dives I did was to Seven Mile Reef, which is further out and less busy than Two Mile. The dive was also slightly deeper than the Two Mile dives we did, which meant there was less surge and conditions were a bit easier all round.

We saw some lovely fish behaviour, and I’ll share two short videos taken with a new camera (more on that another time) to illustrate it. First, a redfang triggerfish (Odonus niger) slides its body into a crevice in the reef as I approach, to hide. This is typical behaviour when these fish are nervous.

Here’s a semicirle angelfish (Pomacanthus semicirculatus) concentrating very hard on feeding. These fish look like nothing so much as gorgeously decorated sheets of A4 paper with fins and a snout!

Snapper in Sodwana

Snapper are one of my favourite coral reef fish to dive with, because sometimes they’ll allow you into, or very close to, the dense schools they form over the reef. This must be what it feels like to be a fish, albeit one that breathes loudly and blows bubbles!

We saw these bluebanded snappers (Lutjanis kasmira) on a dive at Seven Mile Reef in Sodwana, last September. Notice the pair of Moorish idols (Zanclus cornutus) at the start of the video.

 Here’s another school of snapper we came across shortly after the first one. There are often other kinds of fish, including other types of snapper, in the school.

The Reef Guide is a good place to learn more about, and identify, the fish you see on dives off South Africa’s south and east coasts.

Map puffer in Sodwana

This handsome, uncommonly seen map puffer (Mappa puffer – honestly) swam towards me on Seven Mile Reef in Sodwana, and hung out for a minute or two while I took his picture. His patterns look a bit like a circuit board, don’t you think? These fish are solitary and quite shy, usually staying near overhangs in the reef.

The Reef Guide is a good place to learn more about, and identify, the fish you see on dives off South Africa’s south and east coasts.

Cleaning stations in Sodwana

A barred rubberlips at Pinnacles
A barred rubberlips at Pinnacles

A barred rubberlip (also known as a red-lined sweetlip, Plectorhinchus plagiodesmus) at a cleaning station on the reef at Pinnacles on Two Mile reef in Sodwana. It was a surgy day, but if you look closely you can see the bluestreak cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus), with grey, black and blue stripes, swimming in and around the rubberlip’s gills. The rubberlip opens his gill slits so that the wrasses can eat parasites and remove excess mucous, maintaining good health for the fish.

We also saw this yellowfin surgeonfish (Acanthurus xanthopterus) at a different cleaning station, on Seven Mile Reef, also being serviced by bluestreak cleaner wrasses. These fish are usually blue-grey or even brownish, but at cleaning stations they often change colour to a light blue-grey (as this fish has).

Here’s a busier cleaning station, on another dive at Pinnacles. There are two yellowfin surgeonfish, one of whom seems to get a bit cranky with the cleaner wrasses at the end of the video, as well as a crescent tail bigeye (Priacanthus hamrur) at the beginning. The spotted unicornfish (Naso brevirostris) should be easy to spot; their colouration here is much darker than in my fish ID book.

The Reef Guide is a good place to learn more about, and identify, the fish you see on dives off South Africa’s south and east coasts.

Newsletter: Fishy conditions

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving

We have just returned from Sodwana, where we did a few eventful warm water dives with Coral Divers. If you haven’t been to Sodwana you should add it to your diving bucket list, for the colourful, vibrant reefs and good visibility. Highly recommended.

A barred rubberlips at Pinnacles
A barred rubberlips at Pinnacles

Local diving is not looking too promising for this weekend. A strong south easterly wind arrives on Friday night and departs on Sunday night. This is not really ideal for diving False Bay. Hout Bay is currently green and swelly, and will need several days to clean up.

My recommendation – if you must get wet – is that you consider diving in the I&J Oceans Exhibit in the Two Oceans Aquarium (blog post about this coming on Monday) and see the loggerhead turtle, Yoshi. She is to be released later in the year – read more here.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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New regulations about threatened and protected marine species

I’m back from an overly lengthy blogging hiatus (sorry) to resume a function that I’ve performed once or twice in the past. Fortunately I have had octopus on my mind and had already started posting again, and so we aren’t doing a standing start.

Humpback whale on the beach
Humpback whale on the beach

I have read some legislation so you don’t have to, will try to tell you what it means, and – if necessary and possible – I will tell you how to object to it. Someone has to do it, and my mathematician’s brain actually quite likes trying to follow the logic of these documents. (Previous efforts along these lines include this one on seals, this one on new MPAs, and this one on the Tsitsikamma MPA.)

The new legislation this time is actually two documents that were published in the Government Gazette on 30 May. Before we get into these two most recent documents, however, it may be instructive to look back at the original act that they refer to.

National Environmental Management Act: Biodiversity

The act in question is the National Environmental Management Act: Biodiversity, number 10 of 2004 (pdf full text). We will call it NEMBA for short. This act is a framework which provides for the management and conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity, as well as the protection of species that require or deserve it, the fair apportionment of benefits that may arise from the country’s biological resources, and the establishment of SANBI.

The important sections of this act for us, right now, are sections 56 and 57. Section 56 empowers the Minister of Environmental Affairs to publish in the Government Gazette, from time to time (at least every five years or more often than that), a list of critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, and protected species. A species may be protected but not endangered; a case in point is the Cape fur seal.

Section 56 of NEMBA
Section 56 of NEMBA

I am not knowledgeable enough to state confidently that the extract above is using a set of widely accepted definitions here. However, this list of definitions from (critically) endangered to vulnerable does look a lot like the IUCN categories for classifying species at risk of extinction.

The next section talks about activities involving species that fall into one of the categories defined in section 56. Provision is made here for the Minister to define activities that are “restricted”, and section 57 specifies that if an activity is restricted, a permit is required in order to perform it. The definition of restricted may vary from species to species (but I am getting ahead of myself).

Section 57 of NEMBA
Section 57 of NEMBA

Finally, section 97 of NEMBA, which is on page 40 of the PDF file I linked to above, empowers the Minister to make regulations dealing with a large number of matters, mostly permits, and threat-minimisation for threatened ecosystems.

Marine Threatened or Protected Species regulations

With that preamble, let us turn to the most recent regulations, which were made in terms of section 97 of NEMBA and pertain to threatened or protected marine species. They come in two parts. The first (pdf – all page numbers below refer to this file) is a set of regulations, mostly related to permits. This sounds very boring, but there are some interesting bits, and an important definition. Definition first:

Definition of harassment
Definition of harassment

This is a very important definition (from page 10-11) as it essentially determines what is legal and what is not in terms of the act, and one that I think is perfectly reasonable. You can still take photos of and dive with seals, turtles and most sharks. Whale sharks and basking sharks are not to be bothered up close, though.

Notice also that we now have a definition for harassment of dolphins; it has been my understanding (perhaps incorrect) that until now there has been a loophole in that there has been no legal prohibition on approaching dolphins in a boat, whereas boats must stay at a distance of 300 metres away from whales. I can think of other things I have seen boats doing with dolphins – such as corralling them by speeding in a circle at full throttle – that also seem like harassment to me, but don’t quite fit this definition. But I think this is a start. Also, no swimming with dolphins – for profit or not.

Swimming with dolphins
Swimming with dolphins

The regulations go on to state that their purpose relates to the permit system provided for in NEMBA, to registration and legislation of facilities like wildlife breeders and rehabilitators, and to the regulation of activities defined as “restricted”. The regulations also provide some further stipulations regarding boat-based whale and dolphin watching, and white shark cage diving. It is specifically stated that the regulations are to be applied in conjunction with CITES, international regulations which circumscribe international trade in wildlife (and in this way achieve protection for some species).

Page 17-18 defines restricted activities (in other words, activities which you either cannot do at all, or for which you need a permit).

Restricted activities
Restricted activities

Page 18 further clarifies that a permit is required in order to carry out a restricted activity, and the regulations go on to define various types of permit in terms of their period of validity and other criteria.

Permits required for restricted activities
Permits required for restricted activities

There is a lot more on permits, the risk assessments required before they can be issued, and criteria to consider in permit applications. (Does the applicant have a record of offences under NEMBA? Are there objections to issue of the permit? And so on.)

Page 38 mentions that in the case of a captive breeding or exhibition facility, no whales, dolphins, seals, sea birds, white sharks, basking sharks or whale sharks may be introduced from the wild. If I read this correctly, this puts paid to the restocking of dolphinariums with wild-caught animals. Also a start. If you are interested in this aspect of the regulations, I would encourage you to go through the document yourself.

There are some more good provisos aimed at the regulation of wildlife sanctuaries, but that isn’t my main area of interest here.

You may have picked up that some of the activities defined as restricted may be required actions in the event of a whale stranding, for example, or the entanglement of a seabird or turtle in fishing lines. What to do?

One must still act within the law when a stranding occurs
One must still act within the law when a stranding occurs

The regulations make specific provision for the cases in which one might need to handle, move, or even kill an animal listed as threatened or protected. Only those individuals or organisations which are in possession of a permit may perform any of these restricted activists; this largely precludes members of the public from assisting in any significant way at whale stranding, for example. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.

Exceptional circumstances
Exceptional circumstances

Finally the regulations turn to white shark cage diving, and boat-based whale and dolphin watching. I am not sufficiently familiar with the existing regulations of these two industries to comment on what is different or new here, but it is interesting to read through the provisions for each. They seem well regulated. Free diving with white sharks is specifically forbidden. Additionally, as item (e) below states, even if an operator is in possession of a cage diving permit, this does not permit them to chum (“provision” or “attract” sharks) anywhere else.

Cage diving conditions
Cage diving conditions

List of Threatened or Protected Marine Species

The second part of the Government Gazette publication on 30 May is a list of threatened and protected animals. This list mentions fish, whales, seabirds, turtles, and even hard corals. This document (pdf – page numbers below refer to this file) has a very particular tabular layout.

How the list of species works
How the list of species works

Column 2 defines the restricted activities that are prohibited in terms of section 57 of NEMBA (see above). Column 3 provides the exceptions to that rule. [This column of the table mentions section 57(4) of NEMBA – you’ll see my extract above only goes up to (3). I suspect there’s an amendment to the act that I haven’t found that includes this item.]

There is very little variation in the list of restricted activities (column 2) across all the animals and birds; whales have the most interesting list of exempt activities (column 3), which is why we will look at them as an example. This table is from pages 138-139. Click to enlarge.

Whales (page 138-139)
Whales (page 138-139)

Column 2 of the table above defines all the things you can’t do to whales – the “restricted activities”. Column 3 lists a whole lot of terrible-sounding things that can be performed under certain exceptional conditions, in the event of a whale stranding itself on the beach, for example.

This is a good time to practise using the definitions. Notice that column 3 allows “harassing [of the stranded whale] by any Departmental official.” This does not mean that someone from Environmental Affairs is allowed to go and prod a stranded whale with a stick, or throw sand at it. We are talking about harassment in terms of the legal definition above, and this may include “disturbing” the whale, or approaching closer than 300 metres on a boat, for example.

If you’re interested to go and look, the pages of the species list pertaining to seals and their relatives is on pages 141-144. There are no special provisions to worry responsible water users, and the definition of seal harassment as shown above (approaching a colony closer than 15 metres in a boat or 5 metres as a human) is I think entirely reasonable.

Finally, here’s an extract from the permit application form. I include this to show you that all the restricted activities for which permits are required are pretty extreme, and not things that your average recreational diver would reasonably want to do.

Restricted activities permit application form extract
Restricted activities permit application form extract

This has been long, but I hope helpful. The regulations aren’t open to comment (I think I may have missed that earlier this year or last year… oops), they are final.

Energy and advocacy is best directed towards things that the diving community can have an impact on as a collective voice, and in ways that will have a chance of success. In other words, perform actions out in the real world, and align yourself with organisations that do real, scientifically informed conservation work.

I’m sure you all can think of other ideas, but I do have one suggestion regarding a species that isn’t listed here. The sevengill cowsharks that we see at Millers Point aren’t protected (they are “data deficient” on IUCN Red List). If you feel strongly about them, can I suggest as an easy first step, writing some letters (the letter in that link is out of date due to ministerial shufflings, and shark finning in South African waters is banned but this is poorly enforced – but you get the idea).

Once again here’s a link to the regulations, and here’s a link to the species list. Both are pdf files, hosted on this site in case the Government Gazette links above break one day.

 

Bookshelf: Climate Change

Climate Change: Briefings from Southern Africa – Bob Scholes, Mary Scholes & Mike Lucas

Climate Change
Climate Change

This is the book on climate change that I never knew I needed. It is written in the form of 55 questions and answers, from a South African perspective. One of the three authors (Dr Mike Lucas) is a biological oceanographer, so there is ample information on the effect of climate change on the marine environment. The other two authors are climate change specialists.

The book is well illustrated with photographs and diagrams. The authors address sea level rise, El Niño, water scarcity, the effect of rising temperatures on the Southern Ocean and Antarctic, and the survival of coral reefs, among other topics. The final few questions deal specifically with practical actions that can be taken to adapt to and (perhaps) avoid climate change, and one’s personal carbon footprint.

You don’t have to be a weather nerd to benefit and learn from this book. I encourage you to seek it out.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.